By Michael Buzzelli
Two jockeys, Curtis Henshaw (Kymir Cogdell-Freeman) and ABCD (Malic Maat), whose name is pronounced Ab-see-dee, compete in an important horse race, “The Bluegrass Mile” in a new play written and directed by Pittsburgh Playwright’s founder, Mark Clayton Southers (the latest installment in Southers’ 19th Century Collection).
Most of the play’s action takes place in a boarding house owned and operated by Rosa Lee Drew (Chrystal Bates). Rosa Lee spends most of her day cleaning, cooking, and tending to her guests. The rest of her time is spent squabbling with longtime border, Kermit Thomas (Charles E. Timbers, Jr.).
Henshaw arrives in a mess of trouble from the local sheriff (David Whalen). Since the young man is carrying a saddle, the sheriff assumes he stole it and possibly a horse to go with it. Rosa Lee eases tensions by offering the sheriff a drink from her bar. The sheriff wants more. He wants Rosa Lee to sell him the house, but she won’t give up her home or her livelihood.
Meanwhile, sparks are flying between William Pickford (Kevin Brown) and Rosa Lee.
At the fateful Bluegrass Mile race, things go horribly awry. Curtis and ABCD’s lives are in danger from an incident on the track with a horse owned by Henrietta Cogsdale (Kendra McLaughlin), a rich white woman.
Southers’ play is triumphant. It’s got plenty of humor in a taut, suspenseful drama. The second act, like the Bluegrass Mile itself, races to the end. While he drops hints throughout the show, there are still a few twists that hit with audible gasps.
The show exudes a Wilsonian tone. Because it utilizes a lot of similar elements to an August Wilson show, its easy to see the comparisons. Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theater last play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is also set in a boarding house.
Bates is marvelous as the proprietor of the boarding house. She plays Rosa Lee with motherly reverence. The character has closed herself off after her husband died, but William Pickford’s presence stirs something inside her. Bates reveals secrets with a knowing look or a furtive smile.
Whalen portrays a bully of a sheriff. While he claims to be a lawman who upholds the rights of all of his constituents, he is threatening, menacing, and at times, almost evil. Whalen exhibits a range of strong emotions, mostly anger, hatred, greed, and distrust, but the sheriff shows a softer side.
Maat gets a fair share of funny lines and delivers them expertly. He is an accomplished actor with oodles of charm.
Brown makes the most of a smaller role.
Newcomer Cogdell-Freeman is excellent. The fifteen-year-old CAPA student has a potential to be a star in the Pittsburgh theater firmament.
McLaughlin is seen all too briefly in this play, but does a fantastic job. In the manner of any genteel, Southern lady, her character issues threats with a bright, wide smile. She is dressed in an authentic-looking costume courtesy Kimberly Brown (no relation to Kevin Brown) with hair and makeup from Cheryl El Walker.
The entire plot hinges on a monologue delivered by Timbers and he does it with passion and grace. It’s a very moving moment.
The set is another masterpiece by Tony Ferrieri. The now-retired Ferrieri shows no signs of slowing down in his decades as a scenic designer for every major theatrical production company in Pittsburgh.
Deftly stage managed by Ashley Southers (this one is related, she’s Mark Clayton Southers’ daughter).
“The Bluegrass Mile” has a lot of potential. It would be easy to picture a Broadway production of the show. Kudos to the cast and crew for making a riveting evening of theater on the Hill.
“The Bluegrass Mile” runs from October 7th – 29th at the newly christened Carter Redwood Theater in the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. For more information, click here.